Rachel's Democracy & Health News #884
Thursday, December 7, 2006
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #884 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
December 7, 2006
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From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #884 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
December 7, 2006
MONEY TO BURN
[Rachel's introduction: The mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is considering selling city buildings -- including City Hall -- to raise cash to pay for a failed garbage incinerator.]
By Peter Montague
To alleviate massive debt created by the city's garbage incinerator, the mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania has proposed selling off the city's Pubic Safety Building, headquarters for the city's police and fire departments. Harrisburg is the state capital of Pennsylvania.
Harrisburg's mayor of 20 years, Stephen R. Reed, had initially considered selling off City Hall itself, but settled for selling the police-and-fire building instead. The city is flirting with bankruptcy as the incinerator's debt burden grows.
The mayor says selling the Public Safety Building, then leasing it back from its new owner, will raise $10.5 million in short-term cash. The cost of this bit of creative financing would be borne by future taxpayers.
In June, 2003, Harrisburg's 31-year-old garbage incinerator shut down because it could not meet air quality standards. But the city still owed $104 million on the machine, which would have to be repaid at the rate of $7 million per year through the year 2030.
Mayor Reed came up with the idea of borrowing another $125 million to finance a facelift for the defunct machine. The refurbished incinerator would be designed to burn 800 tons of garbage per day, about 8 times as much as Harrisburg itself produces. The machine would import garbage and sell steam and electricity to turn a profit. At least that was the plan.
To feed the machine and reassure investors that they would get their $125 million back with interest, Harrisburg signed contracts with dozens of municipalities in Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry Counties giving Harrisburg the exclusive right to burn their garbage. Such an arrangement is called "flow control," and "flow control" was declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994, but Harrisburg officials insist their plan is legal and can survive any future lawsuits by independent waste haulers seeking to compete with the Harrisburg incinerator.
As soon as the city's incinerator plan was announced, citizen opposition flared. But city officials fought back with a campaign of frightening predictions. They foresaw major problems for taxpayers if the $125 million loan were rejected. Dan Lispi, the Harrisburg official in charge of the incinerator, said annual property taxes on a $100,000 home would rise $500, waste disposal fees would skyrocket, the city would become dependent on dwindling and uncertain landfill space, and there would be "mass layoffs" of city workers.
On the other hand, city officials offered a rosy picture of the refurbished incinerator's financial future, estimating that the plant could earn as much as $23.6 million in its first full year of operation in 2006 -- enough to pay its $9.9 million in annual operating costs, handle the debt payments and begin building a cash surplus.
But residents who turned out for public hearings in August, 2003, said they'd heard similar rosy projections before, when the original incinerator was proposed. They pointed out that the original machine had never worked reliably and that the city had repeatedly borrowed more money to try to improve performance. "You'll never convince me," that refurbishing the old incinerator makes sense, said resident Evelyn Warfield. She outlined the financial history of the original incinerator and presented a petition opposing the new project.
Green Party member Frank Divonzo pointed out that debt on the old incinerator, which was $41 million in 1993, had more than doubled to $104 million by 2003 as officials struggled to keep the original machine working.
But Harrisburg officials were adamant -- rebuilding the incinerator was the city's only hope, they said. So they pressed on and arranged to borrow $125 million for an $80 million facelift of the old machine, plus $45 million in incidentals. Local lawyers, engineering consultants, financial advisors, accountants, and bankers found the plan rewarding.
The incinerator is located in south Harrisburg where 70% of residents are black. The International Ministers Conference of Harrisburg filed a last-minute appeal, saying the project was a clear case of environmental racism. Both the Harrisburg Authority, which owns the incinerator, and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which approved the project, jumped on the ministers with both feet, saying their appeal was both too late and without merit.
The hearing board quickly sided with city and state authorities, ruling that the ministers had filed their appeal too late, and denying any evidence of racism. The original incinerator was built when the neighborhood was predominantly white, they said, and blacks moved in later as whites moved out. The hearing board refused to acknowledge the obvious -- that such a familiar pattern of land use is prima facie evidence of white privilege, a familiar form of racism. The mayor said he knew the ministers would keep an eye on the incinerator to prevent health problems from emerging, tacitly acknowledging what has been obvious for years -- that state and local officials are not up to the task of regulating such a machine.
Harrisburg's refurbished incinerator was supposed to begin burning garbage January 2, 2006, but steel shortages (in Pennsylvania!) and construction delays plagued the project. The Harrisburg Authority gave the firm doing the work -- Barlow Projects Inc. -- a four-month extension to complete the job, and it waived a penalty clause calling for Barlow to pay the city $22,000 for each day the project was late. City Council members have since acknowledged that this was "an incredibly bad decision."
The refurbished machine never worked right from day one. John Luciew, a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, wrote, "Even when the incinerator's three burners were lighted, design flaws with the trash and fuel feeds at one end and the ash handling at the other have hampered operations to the point where just one or two furnaces are firing at any time." In addition, the machine took more staff to run than first thought, resulting in double shifts and abundant overtime.
By late November, the incinerator had earned $12.6 million less than projected for 2006, and the city of Harrisburg was facing a budget shortfall of $13.8 million. The city borrowed $7 million to pay some of its bills. The mayor initially estimated that the incinerator was responsible for $5 million of the shortfall, and that fixing the design flaws in the machine would require an additional investment of $5 to $10 million. By December 1 the mayor revealed that it would cost $14 million to fix the incinerator's design flaws, including replacing its ash-handling systems.
It was around this time that the mayor began thinking of selling city hall to a private party, then leasing it back.
Of course, such a short-term fix would only make the long-term picture worse. Harrisburg and its taxpayers -- not the Harrisburg Authority -- are now on the hook for about $220 million in incinerator-related debt. That equates to payments of about $16 million each year for the next 30 years. Essentially the refurbished incinerator will have to work perfectly every day for the next 30 years to meet its financial obligations. No incinerator in the world has ever achieved such a flawless record of performance.
In desperation, Harrisburg is now considering turning over management of the incinerator to the company that mis-designed it in the first place, Barlow Projects Inc. Under the new plan, Barlow would form a management subsidiary called Harrisburg Resource Recovery Operation LLC that would manage and staff the facility for about $10.5 million annually. The Harrisburg Authority would still own the plant, and the taxpayers of Harrisburg would still own the financial liability.
The management contract would allow Barlow to secure financing for the $14 million in improvements needed to fix the plant. Barlow, not the authority, would pay for the upgrades.
But the deal would destroy the jobs of the 45 city employees who work at the plant. Incinerator officials have said they will "talk to" union officials before privatizing 45 unionized city jobs.
Cynics point put that plan to privatize 45 city jobs has several salutary effects from the point of view of both city officials and the corporate sector:
(a) 45 union jobs will disappear, thus diminishing the bargaining power of one of the only strong unions remaining in the U.S., government employees. At a time when Harrisburg will undoubtedly try to squeeze its workers to pay for a long series of "incredibly bad decisions" by management, it is probably essential -- from management's perspective -- to weaken the union.
(b) Government workers cannot legally contribute to anyone's re- election campaign, but private workers can be subtly coerced by their employers into giving campaign contributions -- so the deal could politicize a substantial pot of money that might now slosh around at re-election time in Harrisburg;
(c) If Barlow fails to run the incinerator properly, the city, not Barlow, will remain liable for the $220 million in debt that the machine has racked up so far.
(d) If regulations on ultrafine particles, or mercury, or other emissions from the incinerator are tightened at any time during the next 30 years -- as seems inevitable -- additional retrofits and additional debt will become necessary.
(d) The waste industry -- always politically alert and active -- no doubt appreciates that the refurbished incinerator will create powerful, ongoing incentives to prevent three large Pennsylvania counties from adopting waste-reduction or recycling measures for the next 30 years.
With $220 million in debt as a driver, all the incentives in Harrisburg are now set to encourage the production of as much waste as possible for the next three decades, to feed the machine.
 Laura Pulido, "Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 90, No. 1 (2000), pgs. 12-40. [10 Mbyte PDF]
From: The Networker .......................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 1, 2005
PRODUCTS, WASTE, AND THE END OF THE THROWAWAY SOCIETY
[Rachel's introduction: The throw-away society, which is damaging the planet and public health, has been encouraged by public policies that reward waste. A new policy called "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) could change the incentives and end the throw-away society.]
By Helen Spiegelman and Bill Sheehan, Ph.D.**
A century ago, when Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM) systems were new, New York City garbage collectors picked up more than 1,200 pounds of waste per resident per year. But in 1905, three-quarters of that waste was coal ashes. Fifteen percent was garbage. Only eight percent was "rubbish" -- everything else from scrap paper to old mattresses, the discards that are now called "product waste" (Morse 1908).
Today, the ashes are gone from household waste but local waste managers are dealing with more than 1,600 pounds of waste per person per year. "Product waste" is now three-quarters of what people throw away. And despite huge public investments in recycling since the 1980s, most of that waste is still buried in landfills or burned.
MSWM systems were set up a century ago in the United States to protect public health. They have become a perverse public subsidy for the Throwaway Society. More and better waste management at public expense has given unlimited license to proliferate discards. Today these systems collect 3.4 pounds of product waste a day for each American man, woman, and child -- twice as much as in 1960 and ten times as much as 100 years ago. It is time to revamp the system so that it no longer supports the throwaway habit.
The evolution of trash The MSWM system includes wastes from residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial sources but not industrial process wastes. As the term "municipal solid waste" implies, local governments play a key role in delivering services, planning, and regulation.
Crowding in industrial cities in the 19th Century gave rise to repeated epidemics of contagious disease and created political support for public investment in municipal sanitation, first to provide clean water and sewerage and later, at the turn of the century, to collect and dispose of refuse. Municipal refuse included not only household waste but also massive quantities of feces from horses and other animals. Pressure from citizen groups like the Ladies Health Protective Association in New York City and the Municipal Order League in Chicago compelled cities to replace or supplement the private "cart men" who collected refuse with uniformed garbage collectors paid by the city. By 1930, MSWM had been organized in most cities.
Since that early survey of garbage pickup in New York City, people have continued to discard about the same amounts of food waste. A new category, yard trimmings, has been added. Coal ash is now treated as industrial waste, not household waste. The key change, however, has been the ten-fold rise in product waste, from 92 to 1,242 pounds per person per year. Containers and packaging now represent 32 percent of all municipal solid waste. Non-durable goods (products used less than three years) are 27 percent, and durable goods are 16 percent.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has been keeping statistics on MSW since 1960, with the most recent update being for 2001 (EPA 2003). During the last 40 years of the 20th Century, total municipal solid waste grew from 88 million tons per year to 230 million tons, an increase driven almost entirely by product wastes.
Reduce, reuse, recycle During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the public began to see polluted, overflowing municipal landfills as a crisis. The understanding also grew that the world's economies were using natural resources at a rate that is unsustainable. Proponents of sustainable development suggested that advanced economies such as those of the United States and Canada would need to reduce per capita material flows to one-tenth of modern levels to meet the needs of future generations of the world living at our standards. Accordingly, in 1989 the US EPA established the following hierarchy of "integrated waste management" practices for municipalities:
Reduce wastes at the source (e.g. by backyard composting, product reuse); Recover wastes (e.g. by recycling, municipal composting); Dispose everything else in an environmentally sound way. Thousands of local governments decommissioned local landfills and built new ones that would better contain contaminants. Local governments also invested public resources in recycling programs that would reduce the flow of MSW to landfills and incinerators. How effective have these programs been? The big success story has been composting and reuse of yard trimmings. This started around 1988 and has risen steadily by an average of 1.18 million tons per year since then. In 2000, 56.5 percent of all yard trimmings entering the MSWM system were being recycled in some way rather than burned or sent to landfills.
After 20 years of municipal investment in recycling programs, however, more than 70 percent of all municipal solid waste is still being buried or burned rather than recovered. The disposal rate has decreased gradually (it was 90 percent in 1980), but in the last decade the decrease has been driven mainly by the recovery of yard trimmings. Product waste recycling has leveled off at about 30 percent of the product wastes that enter the system. Four-fifths of the disposed waste goes to landfills, the rest to incinerators. Meanwhile, we continue to generate and discard more and more products.
What municipal solid waste systems can't do
Why has recycling not kept up with the increase in product waste? Why are such large quantities of both product and non-product waste (especially food scraps) still ending up in landfills and incinerators?
The answers to these questions lie in an inherent limitation of current systems for handling product wastes. For these wastes, the EPA's "integrated waste management" strategy is largely beyond the control of the MSWM system. The system cannot reduce wastes at the source and it cannot require products to be designed for recycling or safe disposal.
Waste prevention lies entirely outside the boundaries of the MSWM system. And outside the boundaries of the system, reducing waste at the source brings little benefit. In 1999 EPA identified a number of challenges facing waste recovery efforts, including the lack of market demand for collected materials and product design that makes materials difficult to recycle (US EPA 1999, p. 125 ff). There is no incentive to buy recycled material, whereas waste managers must continue to offer these materials for sale, even when oversupply drives prices down. Product manufacturers derive no benefits from designing products that are easy to recycle or safe to bury or burn, nor do they incur any costs when their products cause environmental damage after disposal.
If managing product wastes were an extension of the production and consumption system, and the costs and benefits of waste management accrued to producers, these problems would begin to find solutions. Instead, MSWM has enabled the marketing of disposable convenience products, whose convenience is provided by the MSWM system at public expense. The provision of universal collection and disposal of product wastes created conditions that made the Throwaway Society a natural response to the laws of the market.
Giving up on sustainability The MSWM system was originally set up to manage a waste stream made up of relatively homogeneous materials such as ash and biowastes. It cannot mirror the exquisitely complex marketing and distribution system that gets products to consumers in the first place, so it cannot easily optimize the value of product wastes. MSW managers tend to favor large-scale facilities for mixed waste because they are easier to control and more predictable in cost (Murray 1999).
The practice of managing mixed waste means that great quantities of biodegradable materials, including unrecycled paper, yard trimmings, and nearly all food scraps, are being discarded, mainly in landfills, where they produce methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Landfills are the largest human-made source of methane in the United States. New studies suggest that landfill gas collection systems may be far less efficient than previously thought, and that proposed "bioreactor" landfills may actually exacerbate the problem in the short term (Anderson 2005).
With product waste recovery stalled and the proportion of waste sent to landfills and incinerators still at around 70 percent, MSWM practitioners are turning to other schemes such as recovering thermal energy from incinerators and gas from landfills. But recycling saves far more energy than those technologies produce (Morris 2005). By trying to recover energy from mixed waste, waste managers are conceding defeat on the goals set in the 1980s to stem materials flows and conserve resources.
Make producers responsible
Extending producers' responsibility for managing products when consumers are done with them is a promising alternative to the current system of handling product wastes. Known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), this policy approach requires producers (brand- owners) to manage their products at the end of their lives through an infrastructure financed by producers and provided as a service to consumers. To be sure, consumers ultimately pay for improved environmental performance, but including end-of-life management costs in product prices is what drives innovation toward sustainable products and services.
The precursor to EPR was the refillable container system developed a century ago by the beverage industry. Ironically, this system is all but extinct now in North America because of two public policies. One was public investment in the national highway system, which made it more economical to ship one-way from distant production facilities than to operate local bottling plants. The other was the MSWM system, which took care of the empties.
EPR has a small foothold in the US, where 11 states have established take-back programs for beverage containers. Maine adopted legislation in 2004 requiring manufacturers to finance the recycling of computers and TVs collected by municipalities.
Canada has gone much further. Since 199l EPR has become established policy in Canada for many products (Sheehan and Spiegelman 2005). Ontario and Quebec are introducing a form of EPR that relies on MSWM to recover product waste for recycling, with partial reimbursement by industry. Other provinces are allowing producers to form their own product return and recycling systems, while government sets standards and ensures compliance. Comparing the two approaches will provide guidance for future policy.
We believe government policy at all levels should expedite a transition to separate, complementary EPR and MSWM systems.
MSWM should focus on environmentally sound management of food wastes and yard clippings generated in communities. Government policy should direct the MSWM system to provide separate collection and treatment of organic materials and encourage research and development in this area. Landfill regulations in North America should set a date for a sharp reduction in landfilled biowastes, as the European Union did in a 1999 directive. Municipal biowaste management programs should ensure that certain kinds of non-recyclable fiber products (such as waxed cardboard, food-soiled paper products, sanitary products, and other low-grade paper products) are safe for biodegradation. These products must also pay their way through the system.
Product wastes should increasingly be managed through infrastructure provided and funded by producers as part of the production and consumption system. Governments at all levels can send clear policy signals that EPR is the direction of the future. They can issue policy resolutions and white papers; ban disposal of products that can be recycled; require EPR systems for a continually increasing range of products, and then keep EPR products out of the waste system; and they can impose disposal surcharges.
The MSWM system begun a century ago has contributed to the unsustainable growth of material flows in advanced industrial economies. It is not designed for effective management of product wastes. EPR is a promising alternative, but the MSWM system must be adapted to support it. MSWM must gradually withdraw its service for product wastes and expand treatment of source-separated organics. This will, in turn, support sustainable production and consumption and protect public health.
Anderson, P. 2005. Critical Review of EPA Model to Estimate Landfills' Responsibility for Greenhouse Gases. Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, Madison, Wisconsin, USA, in press.
Morris, J. 2005. "Comparative LCAs for curbside recycling versus either landfilling or incineration with energy recovery," International Journal of Life Cycle Analysis, in press.
Morse, W.F. 1908. "The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste." The Municipal Journal and Engineer, New York, NY, USA.
Murray, R. 1999. Creating Wealth from Waste. Demos, London, UK.
Sheehan, B., and Spiegelman, H. 2005. "Extended Producer Responsibility Policies in the United States and Canada: History and Status." In D. Scheer & F. Rubik, editors, Governance and Sustainability: The Case of Integrated Product Policy, Greenleaf Publishing/UK, in press. Available at http://www.productpol icy.org/assets/EPR-US-Canada-01-2005.pdf
US EPA. 2003. Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures. US Environmental Protection Agency. Available at http ://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/msw99.htm
This article is adapted from the Issue Brief, Unintended Consequences: Municipal Solid Waste Management and the Throwaway Society, (Athens, GA: Product Policy Institute, March 2005). Available at www.productpolicy.org/resources/
The Product Policy Institute is an independent nonprofit research and communications organization focusing on the link between production and consumption, on the one hand, and waste generation and disposal on the other, in order to promote public policies that encourage more sustainable practices.
**Helen Spiegelman is President of the Product Policy Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bill Sheehan is Director of the Product Policy Institute (Athens, Georgia). He can be reached at email@example.com or www.productpolicy.org.
From: Resource Insights ...................................[This story printer-friendly]
December 3, 2006
COPERNICUS, DARWIN AND THE CURE FOR AUTISTIC ECONOMICS
[Rachel's introduction: Most environmental problems are rooted in our economic system, which requires growth for the sake of growth. But it doesn't have to be this way. Just as we no longer believe that the earth is flat, humans can learn that we all live together on a finite planet, which means perpetual growth is impossible.]
By Kurt Cobb
Autistic children can spend much of their time in a world of elaborate fantasy, emotionally detached from real people and objects. Unfortunately, it is not much of a leap to substitute the words "most economists" for "autistic children" in the previous sentence. So apparent has this become that there is a burgeoning movement to establish what is now called a "post-autistic economics" to meet the challenges of describing the real social and physical world we live in.
This wouldn't matter much were it not for the inordinate say that economists have in shaping public policy of all kinds and at all levels. Those of the post-autistic persuasion say that establishment economists have become a priestly class of sorts that enforces its neoclassical view on any and all who would dissent. It does this by keeping them off college faculties and out of key policy positions.
But as the biosphere presses its limits upon us in the areas of energy, climate, water, soil and pollution, the neoclassical economic view that human ingenuity will allow the species to ignore every other species on the planet and grow the world economy indefinitely has become life threatening, even civilization threatening.
The cure for this view was suggested by a dear friend. It is a surprisingly simple move, and one with an impressive pedigree. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to work out how the Earth revolved around the Sun. He thus began a journey for humankind that removed it from the center of the universe and placed it, to borrow the words of environmental education giant, David Orr, "on a small planet attached to an insignificant star in a backwater galaxy."
What Copernicus had done for astronomy, Charles Darwin did for biology. After Darwin humans would no longer be set apart from the animal kingdom. Henceforth, they would be only one of its many inhabitants, buffeted by the same laws of mutation and natural selection as the ape and every other living creature. Anthropocentrism in biology was finished.
It is now time -- long past time -- for a Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics in which humans cease to be seen as the privileged species, homo economicus -- at the center of everything and exempt from the limits of the biosphere. Instead, humans need to be placed within the same systems that nourish every plant and animal on Earth. In this case, however, there is a twist. Far from having to realize how insignificant and unexceptional we are, we must come to understand that we have evolved into a different species which William Catton Jr. has dubbed "homo colossus," a man-tool hybrid capable of destroying the very habitat that sustains us and so many other creatures.
The simple fact is that the economy cannot become bigger than the biosphere. (There are, of course, some believers in Star Trek-style fantasies who envision us exploiting and living on other planets. To such people may I suggest that they get started on this project right away since we are running out of time to turn things around here on Earth). Humans already consume at least 40 percent of the photosynthetic product of the Earth each year and, that's an estimate from 1986 when the population was 5.5 billion. Now it is 6.5 billion. And it's projected to be close to 9 billion by 2050. Could we increase our share of the world's photosynthetic product to 60 percent as the 2050 projection implies and still survive? Would we wipe out species upon whom we depend, but of which we currently know nothing? Even if we could transition away from finite fossil fuels, would finding a theoretical, but as yet unknown, unlimited and pollutionless energy source really solve our problems? Or would it simply cause us to bump up against other limits?
When you undergo the Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics, you cannot avoid such questions. The physical world and its limits must be accounted for. To that end some researchers are proposing a comprehensive biophysical economics. One outline of an approach to such a problem can be found in an article entitled "The Need to Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics."
The field of study now known as ecological economics has been working on the problem in a piecemeal fashion for a long time. But even though a comprehensive biophysical economics may never be possible -- since it would require understanding everything about the natural world -- we must attempt the feat for two reasons: 1) to expose the dire peril in which neoclassical economics has placed us and 2) to suggest ways to build an economy that can operate indefinitely on the Earth and not one that only functions until it destroys the Earth's capacity to sustain us.
The French writer Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand is reputed to have said, "Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them." It is to this problem that economists must now turn themselves.
From: Grist ...............................................[This story printer-friendly]
December 5, 2006
WHAT ABOUT THE LAND?
A look at the impacts of biofuels production, in the U.S. and the world
[Rachel's introduction: We want to believe we can replace fossil fuels with biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel from crops). But a burgeoning biofuels market in the U.S. is creating massive deforestation in the Third World.]
By Julia Olmstead
Great news! We can finally scratch "driving less" off our list of ways to curb global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil! Biofuels will soon not only replace much of our petroleum, but improve soil fertility and save the American farmer as well!
Sound too good to be true? Well, yes. But you could be excused for buying the hype.
Ethanol and biodiesel are being promoted as cures for our energy and environmental woes not just by flacks for corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, BP, and DuPont, but by many eco-minded activists and some prominent environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council as well.
As intuitive as it may seem that fuel from plants would be more benign than petroleum-based fuels, the ecological impacts of biofuel production are more complicated, and wider-reaching, than an environmentalist might first imagine.
For years, some critics have claimed that corn-based ethanol has a negative "net energy balance" -- that is, that ethanol requires more energy to produce than it delivers as fuel. But as biofuel production efficiencies have improved, critics have turned their focus to broader sustainability issues.
"Even if corn and soy biodiesel have positive energy balances, that's not enough," says Andy Heggenstaller, a graduate student at Iowa State University researching biofuel crop production. "Large-scale production of corn and soybeans has negative ecological consequences. If biofuels are based on systems that exacerbate soil erosion and water contamination, they're ultimately not sustainable."
Stalk in Trade
Corn is one of the planet's most energy-intensive crops. Industrial corn production requires huge quantities of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (derived primarily from natural gas) and petroleum-based pesticides like atrazine, a known endocrine disrupter. Soybeans need less nitrogen, but farmers douse bean fields with other nutrients and with chemicals like Roundup to keep them pest-free.
The effects of corn and soybean production in the Midwest include massive topsoil erosion, pollution of surface and groundwater with pesticides, and fertilizer runoff that travels down the Mississippi River to deplete oxygen from a portion of the Gulf of Mexico called the dead zone that has, in the last few years, been the size of New Jersey.
As ethanol use pushes corn prices higher, farmers are increasingly abandoning the traditional corn-soybean rotation to what's known in farm country as corn-on-corn. High prices have encouraged farmers to plant corn year after year, an intensification that boosts fertilizer and pesticide requirements.
Water use has also become a concern as corn production expands into drier areas like Kansas, where the crop requires irrigation. The ethanol boom has sent water demands skyrocketing, putting pressure on already suffering sources like the Ogallala aquifer.
And according to a recent report by the World Resources Institute, stepped-up corn ethanol production means not only increases in soil erosion and water pollution, but increases in greenhouse-gas emissions. "If your objective is reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, you need to be aware of what's happening in the agricultural sector," says Liz Marshall, coauthor of the WRI study.
Ethanol proponents say the fuel emits up to 13 percent fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline. But an increase in emissions on the farm could cancel out benefits from emission decreases at the tailpipe.
A Kinder, Gentler Crop?
These environmental concerns have led researchers like Heggenstaller to join a wave of interest in a new generation of biofuels, the much- hyped but yet-to-be-seen-on-the-market cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic differs from grain ethanol in that the fuel comes from the fiber in the plant, rather than the starches in the grain. Any type of plant material can be a source of cellulose, and even cow manure could be processed into fuel.
Fans of cellulosic ethanol are interested in perennial grasses like prairie native switchgrass and towering miscanthus, which require much lower quantities of fertilizers and pesticides than corn and eliminate the need to plow fields annually, a major cause of soil erosion. They say these crops could produce much greater quantities of biomass than corn, and on lands less suitable for crop production.
Indeed, if biofuels are going to make a substantial dent in meeting our fuel needs, processors will need to look beyond corn. If all the corn currently grown in the U.S. were turned into ethanol, it would replace only 15 percent of our annual gasoline demand. (By way of comparison, we could eliminate 15 percent of our gasoline demand by increasing average fuel efficiency of U.S. cars by just four miles per gallon -- an attainable goal using on-the-shelf technology.)
Due to soybeans' relatively low oil yield, soy biodiesel production in the U.S. has already been written off as marginal by most researchers. So many academic and industry leaders are intensely optimistic about the transition to cellulosic sources.
"There's no doubt cellulosic ethanol can supply our energy needs," says Emily Heaton, manager of Energy Crop Product Development at Ceres, Inc., a California-based plant biotechnology company that's working to develop high-yield biomass crops. She agrees with projections from the U.S. Department of Energy that say fuel from perennial grasses could replace more than a third of our petroleum needs by 2030. "We'll be producing more than a billion tons of biomass a year in an environmentally sustainable way," Heaton says.
But even the advent of cellulosic ethanol -- which is not expected to come on line for at least several more years -- could mean more corn, according to Charles Brummer, a professor of plant breeding at the University of Georgia who works with switchgrass and other perennial biomass plants. Corn stalks and other residues from the corn harvest could be used to make cellulosic ethanol just as readily as switchgrass.
"Farmers will produce what makes money," Brummer says. "As long as farm programs support corn production, we're not going to see them growing much of anything else."
Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World
The hype over biofuels in the U.S. and Europe has had wide-ranging effects perhaps not envisioned by the environmental advocates who promote their use. Throughout tropical countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Colombia, rainforests and grasslands are being cleared for soybean and oil-palm plantations to make biodiesel, a product that is then marketed halfway across the world as a "green" fuel.
In Southeast Asia, and increasingly in the Amazon, plantations of the African oil palm have become wildly lucrative. After monocropping the palms on recently cleared rainforest land, growers press the palm fruit and kernel for oil that can be used in both food and industrial applications, including -- and increasingly -- as biodiesel.
The palm oil industry is booming: global exports increased more than 50 percent from 1999 to 2004. To meet the growing demand, producers in Malaysia and Indonesia have ramped up production by clearing thousands of square miles of rainforest for new plantations.
In Indonesia, rainforest loss for oil palms has contributed to the endangerment of 140 species of land animals, while in Malaysia animals like the Sumatran tiger and Bornean orangutan have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Fish kills have become common in waterways surrounding plantations and palm-oil mills, as soil erosion from the cleared land and mill effluents have left waterways clogged with sediment and unviable.
The boom hasn't been limited to Southeast Asia. In one of the most disturbing examples of the biofuel hype's hidden effects, right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia -- a country mired in a four-decade- old civil war -- have in recent years begun planting oil palm plantations over wide swaths of the territory they control. These areas of tropical forest, which lie in the northwestern coastal region known as the Choco and rank among the planet's key storehouses of biodiversity, have been almost entirely expropriated through violence, including massacres of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that have forced those populations out of the region.
Farther south, another biodiversity hotspot is being rapidly cleared to plant a biodiesel crop. Nearly 80 percent of Brazil's Cerrado region -- a woodland savanna mix -- has been cleared for agricultural production, mostly for soybeans, according to a Conservation International report.
Despite being home to thousands of endemic plant and animal species, the Cerrado has been promoted as "the last agricultural frontier" by green-revolution hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. Low land and labor costs and high yield potential have sent investors from as far away as Iowa scrambling to buy up these Brazilian grasslands, frequently in collaboration with U.S. agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland, whose first Brazilian biodiesel production facility is currently in the works.
Tad Patzek, a professor in UC-Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who's known primarily as a critic of corn ethanol, says what's happening in tropical ecosystems is much more serious than the biofuel situation in the U.S. "We've already destroyed the prairie, and the topsoil in the Midwest is going, going, gone," Patzek says. "But the expensive noise we're making here is being translated there into the total obliteration of the most precious ecosystems on earth."
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Julia Olmstead is a graduate student in plant breeding and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University and a graduate fellow with the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., and a freelance writer on agricultural and environmental issues.
Copyright 2006. Grist Magazine, Inc.
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